Last year, Joel Coen went solo in a way, directing a compelling version of Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” without the collaboration of his brother and usual co-director Ethan. And Ethan Coen now takes his own turn in the solo spotlight with a Southern wild man who might as well be rockabilly’s answer to a tragic Shakespearean figure, Jerry Lee Lewis.
But don’t expect soliloquies or soul searching from the upcoming A24 release “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind,” although it does show off a hefty bit of rock ‘n’ roll style black magic in the way the protean piano player, strutting peacock and tortured Christian nicknamed The Killer helped create the blueprint for rock music and took the art of performance to crazy extremes.
And that performance is what Coen focuses on in his documentary, a tidy 73-minute romp through Lewis’ career that manages to fit in about a dozen staggering performances of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” but still leaves you wishing there was room for a couple more.
“This movie was so much fun to make,” Coen said when he introduced the film before its Cannes Film Festival premiere in the Salle Bunuel on Sunday night. “I know people always say that, but in this case, it’s true. Jerry Lee Lewis is … ” He paused and shook his head. “He’s a trip, man.”
Yes, Jerry Lee Lewis is a trip. And yes, the best word for “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind” is fun, because it’s impossible to watch The Killer pump those keys without a big grin.
The opening scene is enough to show you Coen’s priorities: It’s a clip from “The Ed Sullivan Show” of Lewis performing the Mickey Newbury country lament “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye,” and it’s nothing like the full-on rock ‘n’ roll assaults that Lewis is best known for. But even this relatively quiet performance from 1970 is a delicious treat – because in the smallest of gestures, the hint of a smirk, the raised hand before it comes down on the piano, Lewis displays a casual virtuosity that lets you see the wild man he still could be if he felt like it.
“Trouble in Mind” is full of gems, and to Coen’s credit, he lets many of the performances play out at full length; this isn’t a doc that keeps cutting away from the songs so that we can hear people talk about the songs. There is a lot of interview footage with Lewis from over the years, but it’s assembled playfully: He might start a story in a clip from the ’50s and finish it in the ’70s, with a couple of detours to other decades along the way.
It also drops the biographical tidbits as casually as possible: Of course, it mentions that he married his 13-year-old cousin, but Jerry Lee doesn’t make a big deal of it so neither does the movie. And oh, by the way, did we mention that he once shot his bass player in the chest? Well, he did.
The result is a delightful look at a dark and complicated man, one that’s not interested in explaining his demons other than to point out that he’s got a load of them. There’s only a brief glimpse of the recent Lewis, from a January 2020 gospel-music session that was organized by longtime Coen collaborator T Bone Burnett, but it’s a treat to see that he’s come back from a stroke to give his all to “Amazing Grace.”
Full disclosure: I’m probably not terribly objective about “Trouble in Mind.” I come to the film with not just an admiration for Lewis’ work, but a vivid Jerry Lee story of my own. More than 30 years ago, I spent a week in Memphis on the set of the godawful biopic “Great Balls of Fire,” with Dennis Quaid as The Killer and Winona Ryder as his young bride. Midway through the week, the film’s producer drove me to Arkansas to sit down with Jerry Lee, who came through the locked metal gate in his garishly-furnished ranch house outfitted in a powder-blue jumpsuit and reeking of cologne. “I thought you said you were bringing a woman,” he said to the producer, who explained that no, I was the Rolling Stone reporter he’d been told about. “You said it was gonna be a woman,” he repeated, before sitting down grudgingly for a somewhat argumentative interview that was regularly interrupted by Jerry Lee yelling at his wife to bring him his bottle of Crown Royal. (He got madder and madder until she finally found it – in the glove compartment of his car.)
And then, when things were at their tensest and most uncomfortable, he suddenly lightened up and even showed some flashes of self-awareness beneath the bluster, complimenting me on being able to travel around talking to different people, like “crazy piano players.”
That’s the Jerry Lee I was hoping to see on screen, and he’s definitely present in “Trouble in Mind.” But this is a movie that’ll leave you thinking less about how complicated a man he was than how amazing those versions of “Lewis Boogie” or “Move on Down the Line” (with Tom Jones!) or “Hi-Heel Sneakers” (with go-go dancers!) or “Once More with Feeling” were – not to mention those crazy vocal breakdowns in “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” which are pretty much a master class in salacious rock ‘n’ roll vocalizing.
Back in 1993, Rhino Records put out a two-disc anthology of Lewis’ work, and used the title “All Killer, No Filler.” And that’s pretty much the best way to look at “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind,” which gives you 73 minutes of prime Jerry Lee with wit, humor and a whole lotta shakin’ indeed.